Mega Rail Link

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By Muham­mad Ali Eh­san

When it comes to Sino-Pak re­la­tions, In­dia hardly ever looks fa­vor­ably at the co­zi­ness between the two coun­tries. In fact, many in In­dia con­sider Pak­istan as China’s Is­rael in the re­gion. When­ever faced with a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion, Pak­istan has always looked to China which al­most always re­sponded fa­vor­ably to Pak­istan’s needs. The ‘Bei­jing bend’ to­wards Pak­istan has a his­tory.

If the pur­suit of friend­ship and co­op­er­a­tion between China and Pak­istan has been a never-end­ing goal, In­dia’s con­cerns about the two coun­tries have been equally un­re­lent­ing. Whether it was the Pak-China de­mar­ca­tion and bor­der agree­ment signed in 1963 or the con­struc­tion of the 1300-km-long Karako­rum High­way in the 1970s, In­dia has never looked at such de­vel­op­ments con­struc­tively, always ob­ject­ing to them for be­ing against In­dian in­ter­ests.

The Sino-Pak­istan re­la­tions are viewed by In­dia as a re­la­tion­ship that is more anti-In­dian and ‘mil­i­tary and strate­gic ori­ented’. In­dia be­lieves that the mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary con­tacts between the two coun­tries are too deep. Lit­tle doubt that such a be­lief is based on some solid ev­i­dence. Had it not been for China’s mil­i­tary as­sis­tance, Pak­istan would have never been able to match In­dia’s con­ven­tional mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity.

It was China that be­came the largest sup­plier of mil­i­tary hard­ware to Pak­istan when the Amer­i­cans im­posed sanc­tions in the 1990s.

Since then, Pak­istan’s mis­sile pro­gram took an up­ward surge. The mis­sile and nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Pak­istan have a lot to do with the tech­no­log­i­cal as­sis­tance pro­vided by China. In ad­di­tion, Pak­istan has handed over the con­trol of the Gwadar Port to China – a move that gives tremen­dous strate­gic lever­age to China, pro­vid­ing it an open­ing to­wards the Ara­bian Sea and the Per­sian Gulf as well as a view into In­dia's western coast in­clud­ing Gujarat and Ma­ha­rash­tra.

It is against this back­drop that one should view the re­ported ‘pre­lim­i­nary re­search study’ un­der­taken by China to build an in­ter­na­tional rail link con­nect­ing the Chi­nese bor­der prov­ince of Xin­jiang to Pak­istan. Act­ing as the lat­est strate­gic ir­ri­tant, this 1800-km-long China-Pak­istan


rail­way line is slated to be con­structed in two phases over a pe­riod of the next five years.

In the first phase a 700-km­long rail link pass­ing through the Karako­ram Moun­tain ranges and the 4000-me­ters high Khun­jareb Pass will be laid. Orig­i­nat­ing from Kash­gar in China, this link will end at Havelian in Pak­istan. In phase two, the rail­way line will be fur­ther ex­tended. Pass­ing through Is­lam­abad, La­hore, Mul­tan, Sar­godha, Faisal­abad and Karachi, it will reach its fi­nal des­ti­na­tion – the Gwadar Port in Balochis­tan. The project has a com­ple­tion time of five years. Ob­vi­ously In­dia is not happy and views the project as a joint at­tempt by China and Pak­istan to un­der­mine In­dia’s in­flu­ence in Kash­mir.

Since the rail­way line passes through Azad Kash­mir, it would en­hance the po­lit­i­cal and economic power sta­tus of China and Pak­istan in a dis­puted ter­ri­tory. From In­dia’s per­spec­tive, this will un­der­mine its claim on the Azad Kash­mir ter­ri­tory. What makes

The con­struc­tion of this rail­way line is go­ing to be a dif­fi­cult task as it passes through the Karako­rum Range which has an al­ti­tude of 4000 to 5000 me­ters above sea level. But then China has al­ready achieved the feat of con­struct­ing the world’s high­est rail­way.

the sit­u­a­tion more com­pli­cated is the fact that China oc­cu­pies one-fifth of the orig­i­nal state of Jammu and Kash­mir which makes it an im­por­tant third party in the Kash­mir dis­pute. In the 1962 war, China took con­trol of some 38000 sq km of ter­ri­tory in Askai Chin, an area lo­cated in the western part of China, ad­ja­cent to the Xin­jiang prov­ince. Pak­istan fur­ther ceded 5180 sq km of north­ern Kash­mir to Bei­jing in a bor­der de­mar­ca­tion agree­ment in 1963.

Tech­ni­cally, the con­struc­tion of this rail­way line is go­ing to be a dif­fi­cult task as it passes through the Karako­rum Range which has an al­ti­tude of 4000 to 5000 me­ters above sea level. But then China has al­ready achieved the feat of con­struct­ing the world’s high­est rail­way – a 710mile-long line built at a height of 16000 feet that con­nects China with Ti­bet.

Will such a rail­way line usher in a new era of economic resur­gence and pros­per­ity in the re­gion? How much dam­age will the project in­flict on In­dian in­ter­ests? Th­ese are some of the ques­tions asked by those who con­sider the com­mis­sion­ing of this rail­way line as an im­por­tant game-changer in the re­gion’s future.

Some past ‘Kash­mir-spe­cific ac­tions’ by China are the rea­son that the In­di­ans feel lit­tle as­sured about the true na­ture of Chi­nese in­ten­tions. In 2008, China started giv­ing sta­pled visas to the peo­ple of Jammu and Kash­mir, sug­gest­ing that it con­sid­ered Kash­mir as a dis­puted ter­ri­tory. In Septem­ber 2010, it re­fused a visa to Lt. Gen. Jaswal, the head of the In­dian Army’s North­ern Com­mand, on grounds that he was com­mand­ing troops in a dis­puted area. Re­cently, China has shown Arun­chal Pradesh as its own ter­ri­tory in the lat­est pub­lished maps, to which the gov­ern­ment of In­dia has of­fi­cially protested. China even ex­tended an in­vi­ta­tion to Mir­waiz Fa­rooq to visit China. It was deemed as a cold re­minder to In­dia of what China could do if the In­di­ans didn't avoid in­ter­fer­ing in mat­ters re­lated to Ti­bet. China has al­ready sta­tioned more than 50,000 troops in the Ti­bet Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion.

This pro­posed rail link between Pak­istan and China has as­sumed im­mense strate­gic and mil­i­tary im­por­tance for China af­ter the Amer­i­can an­nounce­ment of the ‘Asia-Pacific Pivot’. It will en­hance the sta­tus of China which seeks di­rect ac­cess to the Ara­bian Sea through the Gwadar Port and strate­gic sta­bil­ity against both the U.S. and In­dian navies in the In­dian Ocean. Cur­rently, 80 per­cent of the oil im­ported by China trav­els through the In­dian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. Be­ing the world’s sec­ond largest oil con­sumer and the largest oil im­porter, China needs to en­sure that the oil sup­ply from the Gulf con­tin­ues into main­land China with­out go­ing around In­dia. More than any­thing else, the rail link will re­sult in the loss of the strate­gic up­per hand of the In­di­ans and the Amer­i­cans in the Ara­bian Sea.

For Pak­istan, both the mil­i­tary and economic ben­e­fits of this am­bi­tious project are tremen­dous. The coun­try can con­struct and lo­gis­ti­cally sup­port de­fense struc­tures all along the rail­way line in Azad Kash­mir. The project is likely to cre­ate thou­sands of jobs and economic ac­tiv­ity and will go a long way in ac­com­mo­dat­ing the ag­grieved Baloch na­tion­als in main­stream Pak­istan. Af­ter its com­ple­tion, Is­lam­abad could ac­tu­ally emerge as the re­gional hub of economic ac­tiv­ity.

How­ever, there will be huge ob­sta­cles and chal­lenges for both Bei­jing and Is­lam­abad in ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing this mega project. Se­cu­rity chal­lenges to the in­fra­struc­ture and the se­cu­rity of Chi­nese en­gi­neers will be the most im­por­tant con­cern. Baloch sep­a­ratists, who en­joy the sup­port of their ex­ter­nal bene­fac­tors, may also not want the rail­way’s com­mis­sion­ing in Balochis­tan. In­dia would not like the mil­i­tary lever­age the rail­way line will give to Pak­istan in quick mo­bi­liza­tion and trans­porta­tion of its mil­i­tary along the 772 km-long LoC between In­dia and Pak­istan.

The Asia-Pacific re­gion is on the thresh­old of a mas­sive change. The China-Pak­istan rail­way line, with all its known and un­known chal­lenges and uncer­tain­ties, is a project whose com­ple­tion will cer­tainly en­hance Pak­istan's economic stature in the Asia Pacific re­gion.

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